The Value of Time and Tables / Il Valore del Tempo e dei Tavoli

One might be tempted to use the well-known phrase, dolce far niente, to describe today’s events. At 10:45 am, Helen, Tony and I gathered for mass, after which we enjoyed cappuccini alla piazza insieme for an hour before we stepped to pranzare al osteria fino alle 3 pm.

At the table we shared bruschetta mista (pomodori, cannellini, e due typo di olivi), gnocchi con pomodoro, ravioli con melanzane, e corniglio aceto, followed by una torta cioccolata con pere e crema. We discussed architecture, earthquakes, minimalism, travel, our homes, language, socio-linguistics, the 9/11 memorial, friends in common, plans for our return to Seattle, and –of course– food.

When I returned to Il Nuovo to write notes from my balcony, pausing to appreciate the gentle rain and passing clouds, that phrase, dolce far niente –or, the sweetness of doing nothing– crossed my mind until I quickly abolished it. I have done nothing before and I find truly doing nothing to be quite boring — unless I’m ravaged by the flu. Our shared table time today was far from noioso.

I asked myself, what is the value of time, then? Or, put another way, what is the value of not rushing time? What is the value of discussing timeless subjects without hastening through a meal or mentally moving on to the next thing? What is the value of being present and aware of everything — from the quality of the food to the quality of the company?

In America, we use meals to refuel our bodies, often standing while we hold our food in one hand; engineers of “fast food,” we don’t leave ourselves time to sit and eat, let alone digest. In Italy, lunch and dinner are established pauses for people to enjoy one another. There is sequence and rhythm to the Italian meal, but above all, everything is shared: plates of food, carafes of wine, conversation, and certainly time. We’ve attempted this in America as a novelty –“family style” restaurants– but it’s certainly not for all, especially those who want things to be separate, their own.

Perhaps that’s the real difference: people are more giving of their time and space to one another here. In America, we say that time is money, which is perhaps why we’re so stingy with it. We see long lunches as a time sink (unless we’re signing a contract), and we often only make time for long meals –or even sit-down dinners– on special occasions rather than as a daily matter of course.

While the Slow Food and Slow Money movements are commendably calling attention to the human need for –and benefit from– the equation I paraphrase as “time + (local) food + connection = happiness + health + (local) wealth,” I wonder how possible it is for Americans to truly embrace and validate such truly foreign concepts.

As a nation, we came together based on the desire for space: physical space to homestead outside of crowded cities, political and religious space to worship or support a cause without persecution, the space to say what we think without being executed or jailed — and later, space to drive our single-occupant vehicles. However, by founding a nation on the idea of space = freedom, we have nurtured a culture of isolationism. Since such a place had to be built from the ground up, we also birthed the concept of time = money, our noses bent ever closer to the grindstone.

Time may be money in a sense, but what my days in Civita continue to confirm –especially at the table– is that time spent together is gold. When we think about “saving up,” we should consider the time we spend sweetly doing nothing together as daily savings toward the wealth of our relationships — our emotional bank accounts.

After all, what is the price of our “free time” if it comes at the expense of rich friendships that lend flavor to the minutes and milestones of our lives? When we reach those later years, which are best shared with lifelong friends, it will be time squandered if life was all about hoarding each second to ourselves…and we’ll likely be alone when we polish those pennies.

I continue to wonder how it’s possible that my days here are so rich, despite living without most everything I own, and living so far away from friends. Then I recall the strength of those friendships –thanks in part to the many tables we’ve shared– and I realize that the security of our collective emotional treasure indeed lasts during the lean times.

Of course, what has reinforced that knowledge –and what will shape how I live daily ever after– are the meals I’ve shared in Civita and the wealth I continue to discover thanks to the new accounts of friendship I’ve opened here.

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